Possibility for locks re-opening looms
Within the next five to 10 years, the Willamette Falls Locks could be open and operating once again, but under new ownership.
The locks, which opened in 1873 as a way for commercial and recreational boats to navigate up and down the river from either side of the falls, closed in 2011 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) determined that excessive corrosion of the locks' gates made them a public safety hazard.
The USACE recently approved a Disposition Report that would allow ownership of the locks to transfer from the USACE to a local entity like a public corporation.
"The Corps' Portland District is actively involved with the Willamette Falls Locks Commission and supports transferring the facility to a new owner as named by the Commission," a statement from the Willamette Falls Locks Commission read. "Prior to disposal, the Corps will implement seismic retrofits to portions of the locks to address structural instability, and to mitigate and avoid potential adverse impacts to Endangered Species Act-listed species, fish passage and ecosystem restoration improvements, and adjacent property owners."
The commission, which was instituted by the state of Oregon in 2017, is responsible for finding a new owner of the locks, the press release states.
When the USACE closed the locks in 2011 they were not meant to reopen. The USACE planned to dam the locks at the top of the falls, but advocates for reopening the falls helped to reverse that course.
"Because there's so many diverse interests in wanting to keep the locks and reconnect the river, the upper and lower reaches of the Willamette, and for all the many benefits the locks bring, there's been this concerted effort to work with the corps of engineers to see a successful transfer and see them repaired and reopened," West Linn Mayor and Willamette Falls Locks Commission Chair Russ Axelrod said.
According to the commission's Oct. 22 press release, a study by ECONorthwest found that opening the locks would provide $12-49 million of transportation benefits and $12-50 million in recreation benefits to the state of Oregon, as well as remove 80,000-220,000 truck trips from Portland area roads and provide a reduction of 11,000-32,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
"Reopening the locks and returning navigational access around Willamette Falls also holds tremendous historical and cultural value to Oregonians, and to the state's Native American tribes. Tribal history in the area dates back at least 14,000 years, once serving as a place to collect food and fiber and to trade with other tribes, as well as a spiritual and ceremonial gathering place," states the press release, which also notes that representatives from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are on the commission.
Axelrod said the commission is aiming to be ready for a transition and repair period between 2020-2024. He also said the commission is still looking to secure funding to make the re-opening possible.
An initial capital investment of about $14-15 million is needed to repair and restart the locks, according to Axelrod. He mentioned the possibility that those funds could come from state lottery bonds.
According to Axelrod, the operational costs of the locks are hard to estimate because it's not yet known how many days per week the locks would run, but the commission estimates somewhere in the range of $400,000-800,000 per year.
The commission will discuss some of the funding options at its next meeting Nov. 13 at 4:30 p.m. at West Linn City Hall.
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